One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
“In order to understand the situation in Paraguay today, you have to understand its history.”
Walking around the city centre yesterday, a family member took myself and my partner on a tour of a museum and historic monuments. The family member gave us a brief lesson on her country’s past.
We drove past the Plaza de la Independencia. We walked beside the Plaza de los Desaparecidos. We drove up Palma, Oliva and Estrella streets – the three streets named after the images on Paraguay’s flag.
She pointed out the wars that have taken place between Paraguay and its neighbours, like the 1846-1870 Paraguayan War which killed more than half of the population, mostly men. She noted the strength of the country’s women, who were left to rebuild the nation. The war, also known as the War of the Triple Alliance, saw Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina team up against the landlocked country.
That said, the history of Paraguay is murky.
The country’s official history is largely in the tight grip of Brazil. In 1869, the Brazilian military pillaged Asunción and snatched Paraguay’s national archives. Since then, they have been kept in secrecy in Río de Janeiro.
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Like many Latin American countries, Paraguay’s history is riddled with dicatorships, coups d’état, abuse of indigenous peoples, massacres and disappearances.
The most recent dicatorship was that of Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled from 1954 to 1989. While he held elections during his reign, they were considered farces, where other candidates faced violence and votes were rigged in favour of his Colorado Party. As happened throughout Paraguay’s history, a lot of land forcibly changed hands from farmers and peasants to richer dueños.
After Stroessner’s fall in 1989, the dictator’s party continued to rule, winning elections until 2008. Fernando Lugo was the first non-Colorado president in 60 years, with the party Patriotic Alliance for Change and backed by the Liberal party.
This seems to be one of the reasons that some people have been fighting for Lugo even though they may not support him.
Lugo has admitted to fathering a number of children during his time working with the Church; before taking office, he was a Roman Catholic Bishop. There is a general sentiment that he has done little in his four years of presidency, especially with respect to land distribution issues, a key plank of his election platform. A few people have also remarked that they have heard more from him during his two days of ex-presidency than during his four-years in office.
I have not been able to speak to everyone in Paraguay. I have only been here a few days, and I have spent a lot of that time with my partner’s family and friends. What I write is based on what I read in books, talk to people about, see on the internet and watch on television.
That said, I have not heard one person say Lugo was a good president, whether to me, in passing, eavesdropping, on television or radio or internet.
It is important to note that some people have told me they are happy he is gone. But others worry about how the process of his impeachment will affect democracy in Paraguay.
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A part of history is, of course, the people who lived it. The events affect them, and they effect history in turn.
After the museum, my partner’s family member took us through a small market by the riverside. There, she introduced him to vendors, always noting who his Paraguayan grandparents were.
There were smiles and laughter. His dimples reminded them of his grandfather. They touched his arm with reminiscent eyes. One woman said he brought back so many memories.
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At the bar on Saturday night, celebrating a birthday – and incessantly chatting about the new government – someone asked how I liked Paraguay.
I said I had never heard a Paraguayan say a nice thing about Paraguay. Every time I say anything even slightly positive about the place – even something like “the food is good” or “there’s a nice landscape” – someone else adds that the country is terrible, people only live for themselves with no care for others, or there’s no freedom and politically the place is a mess.
The man paused thoughtfully, and said this was probably because it was only a few years ago that people felt free enough to say what they thought without risking harm. This freedom, after decades of silence, means that people have a lot of pent-up anger that they are venting now.